litterature review

Civil society and the political imagination in Africa.

Rethinking the notion of civil society in the context of Africa.

Author : J.L Comaroff and J. Comaroff

By Martin Vielajus

December 2005


KeyWords : State Identity Africa ; Uganda

Table of content

The term “civil society” has long been used as an instrument to forge the social imagination and the ideological tropes of specific societies. The notion often belongs much more to “the poetics of ideology” than to the field of social analyses. This polyvalence and ambiguity explains the capacity of such a concept to endorse successively different doctrines and different cultural conceptions. However, the term has been dominated by a specific connotation, derived from a particular phase of European history: the construction of the modern nation-state and Western liberal democracy. It is interesting to consider how this model of “civil society” has been historically built in Europe and how such a model can be compared with other social realities and popular aspirations.

According to Comaroff & Comaroff, the rise of the modern ideal of civil society in Europe is related to two periods of political transitions, directly questionning the definition of “social” and its identity. These periods of social revolutions interrogate the very fabric of the “social” and the space between the citizen and the sovereign polity.

The second half of the eighteenth century frames the rapid development of capitalism, the empowerment of the bourgeoisie and what Adam Smith prospected as a “society of strangers”, atomised and dissocialised. The power of the market and the deepening separation between state and society influenced this search for a “society”, a “democratising image of a self-generated moral community”

The second rise of the notion is happening nowadays, facing the opacity of the State and its decreasing capacities to represent its citizens and guarantee their welfare. As in the late eighteenth century, the new period illustrates a reaction of society toward the State.

The opposition between State and civil society was even clearer in eastern and central Europe where the notion is said to have arisen during the late 1970s and 1980s, as a reaction against increasingly repressive communist rule.

The common point of all these “moments” of affirmation of a “civil society” could be summed up by Bayart’s definition: “Civil society exists only in so far as there is a self-consciousness of its existence and of its opposition to the State.” This western-oriented conception implies several criteria to define who is, and who is not a part of civil society.

The first one is obviously the radical opposition between members of the State and members of civil society. This conception also implies a clear distinction between the public and the private sphere of each individual, as conceptualised by theorists like Locke or Rousseau. Eventually this vision goes hand in hand with a form of “one-dimensional”, homogeneous and rather unified society.

Such a definition excludes from the sphere of social society some elements that seem to be fundamental to understanding African governance.

By describing the political forces at stake in the modern Uganda, Mikael Karlstöm points out how this notion of civil society has to be redefined concerning Africa.

Firstly, the Western distinction between public and private spheres makes it impossible to consider ethnic and kinship-based associations as a part of civil society. However, the building of a political system in Uganda was based, during the pre-colonial period, on the importance of the clans. Clans were the central focus of organizational articulation between the general population and the monarchy. The federation of “Clans Heads” was the best representation of popular aspiration, it remained an important political force during the election of the NRM in 1986 and had a fundamental influence in the restoration of the monarchy in 1993. The exclusion of this axis of solidarity as a part of civil society, considering it as a form of private solidarity, illustrates the consolidation of the Western bourgeois domestic sphere centered on the nuclear family. Indeed, the transition to liberal democracy in Europe replaced local or regional affinities by a form of national affinities, and the vision of a modernizing Africa seems to be conceived in the same way. But in order to protect a fruitful relationship between state and society in Africa, kinship and clan solidarities have to be conceived as having both a private and a public face.

Moreover, the strict distinction and even opposition between State and society that characterised the western conception of civil society must be put into question. One example developed by Mikael Karlstöm is the “Local Council” system in Uganda, an institution of the Ugandan state that also represents a fundamental meeting place for the population. These Local Councils, in every village, based on a system of democratic election, are not considered by the population as a part of the government. Where those councils are not locally legitimate, they simply cease to exist. Local Councils in Uganda therefore mark a partial return to an earlier model of relations between State and society, prior to the transition from absolutist monarchies to liberal nation-states in Europe.

Another illustration of this restricted conception of western “civil society” is proposed by Adeline Masquelier. The strict distinction between public and private interest directly exclude the religious sphere from the definition of civil society. The example of the role of Islam in West Africa, and more specifically the action of reformist “Izala” in contemporary Niger tends to challenge this definition. Promoting ideas like the importance of education for all, or the need to redefine women’s role in society, this movement mostly appeared as a form of social contest, canalising an important part of the communal discontent. In other words, Izala contributed to a public sphere of discourse that differed from European formulation of civil society- in which religion is markedly absent.


Questioning the notion of civil society, presenting it as historically and culturally frozen in a western liberal conception, is also a means to question the assessment made by western political scientists about Africa. If civil society in Africa can appear to be “at worst impossible, at best embryonic or marginal”, it may be merely the result of the definition of the concept.

In a more general way, this issue raises the question of representation of the population, which is nowadays a central concern for the reform of governance. The very notion of governance implies the participation of the forces of civil society in the collective process of decision-making of the country. But this assumption necessitates an ability to designate the forces that represent popular aspiration. The debate around the notion of civil society is thus a central element of the construction of a new form of democratic governance


Ed. By J.L Comaroff and J. Comaroff

Critical Perspectives. 329 p., 1999

See also